The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: African American Critical Theory and Cyberculture

(A shorter version of this article was published in the October 1996 issue of WIRED Magazine. My friend and colleague Ben Arnett used this title as a subheader his paper, &quot;Pac Man, Patriots, and the High Tech Post Baby-Boom Postmodern Culture&quot; (<i>Viet Nam Generation</i> 6:3-4, 1994: 36-52). Though I believe I came to this title independently of Ben, I can’t swear it. Memory is notoriously flawed. )

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world—a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled arrivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.

(W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903)

In cyberspace, it is finally possible to completely and utterly disappear people of color. I have long suspected that the much vaunted “freedom” to shed the “limiting” markers of race and gender on the Internet is illusory, and that in fact it masks a more disturbing phenomenon—the whitinizing of cyberspace. The invisibility of people of color on the Net has allowed white-controlled and white-read publications like WIRED to simply elide questions of race.1

The irony of this invisibility is that African American critical theory provides very sophisticated tools for the analysis of cyberculture, since African American critics have been discussing the problem of multiple identities, fragmented personae, and liminality for over a hundred years. But WIRED readers and writers aren’t familiar with this rich body of critical theory, and so we are presented with articles like “Sex, Lies, and Avatars,” which fawn uncritically over Sherry Turkle’s supposedly groundbreaking work in Life on the Screen.

Turkle’s work is interesting, as far as it goes, but limited in its scope. Instead of looking to Lacan (who, like Turkle, works in a white, European tradition), she might have more profitably turned her eyes closer to home. If Turkle had read W.E.B. DuBois, she might not have had to wait “more than twenty years after meeting the ideas of Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari” to find an environment in which these “Gallic abstractions” were “more concrete.” (Life, p. 15) Turkle (and WIRED) are always already talking about the white self, and even within that category, a limited set of the white self: middle- to upper-class, educated, usually male. This privileged white self becomes the normative self, the “we” of WIRED and, unfortunately, of most of the Net.

But the struggle of African-Americans is precisely the struggle to integrate identity and multiplicity, and the culture(s) of African-Americans can surely be understood as perfect models of the “postmodern” condition, except that they predate postmodernism by hundreds of years, and thus contradict the notion that the absence of the (illusion of) unitary self is something new. Cyberpunk writers have felt this resonance, and that is why Gibson’s Net is populated by loas, deities from the voudou religion of the Caribbean; why Emma Bull’s protagonist in Bone Dance is ridden by the same gods; why Stirling’s Islands in the Net features Rasta-based characters.2 The “culture of simulation” is no different from “the culture” for people of color in this country, who have been “inventing” themselves, their multiple selves” as they go along, and “constructing the world, too” (as Ellison’s Invisible Man constructed his underground room, illuminated by stolen power).

I’m reminded of a science fiction workshop I took in 1976. Ted Sturgeon, a great teacher, assigned us to write a science fiction story that answered the question, “Why don’t black people write science fiction?” Ted was progressive, a good man. He asked the question honestly. We all wrote stories about how the day-to-day struggle for survival left black folks no time or energy to construct fantasies. I took Ted’s word that there were no black science fiction writers. But Ted was wrong, and I was wrong, and it took me a long time to understand that white publishers and the white science fiction establishment, and white critics simply couldn’t see African-American science fiction, just like the white guy who bumps into Ellison’s Invisible Man can’t see him, even as the Invisible Man beats the crap out of him. George Schuyler wrote science fiction back in the 1930s. Ralph Ellison wrote it in the 1950s. Sam Greenlee wrote it in the 1960s. Octavia Butler, Sam Delany, Toni Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Ishmael Reed have been writing it for the last couple of decades. The work is out there, but nobody talking about cyberspace pays the least bit of attention to it.

Just like no one talking about hypertext pays attention to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose description of the Ifa (Yoruba sacred texts) could be a model for that form:

Its system of interpretation turns upon a marvelous combination of geomancy and textual exegesis, in which sixteen palm nuts are “dialed” sixteen times, and their configurations or signs then read and translated into the appropriate, fixed literary verse that the numerical signs signify…. These verse texts,whose meanings are lushly metaphorical, ambiguous, and enigmatic, function as riddles, which the propitiate must decipher and apply as is appropriate to his or her own quandary.” (Signifying Monkey: 10).

The god Ifa writes the texts, and the god Esu translates them, and it is exactly this translator-god who has metamorphosed into the Trickster figure of contemporary African-American culture. That the Trickster inhabits the Net is undeniable—he is, in fact, the essence of the Net. Gates’ Trickster/Signifying Monkey (and it’s no accident that African-Americans were using “signify” as a verb long before the postmodernists picked it up) embodies various black rhetorical tropes, including “marking, loud-talking, testifying, calling out (of one’s name), sounding, rapping, playing the dozens, and so on.” (52) Net culture can easily be understood in these terms—the Signifying Monkey is surely the Father of Flames.

We don’t need “a whole new set of metaphors for thinking about the unconscious.” We need, as a culture, to pay attention to the theory and literature of those among us who have long been wrestling with multiplicity. There are many things about e-space which are not new. Yes, the Internet gives us more people writing, but I’m afraid that at the moment it give us more of the same people writing. Let’s see some real difference.


1. Do not be mislead by the presence of this article in the pages of WIRED. Eight-hundred words can name the problem, but not begin to bridge the gap.

2. Gibson’s loas in Neuromancer bear an uncanny resemblance to the loas in Toni Cade Bambara’s novel, The Salt Eaters—a novel of the struggle for civil rights in which the protagonist moves through a world inhabited by loas and visited by space aliens. And Stirling’s Islands in the Net features a sun tan cream which turns everyone who uses it black; he was most likely unaware that a Harlem Renaissance writer named George Schuyler had written a very popular novel called Black No More in which a black doctor invented a machine to turn black folks white almost overnight, totally overturning the social order. Whether they know it or not, these cyberpunk writers and many others have precedents in African-American literature.

©Kali Tal. All rights reserved.